You always know you're talking to someone with a great job when it's a job you'd drop everything to do on reading about it. Chuck Dalldorf, Public Information Officer from San Juan Island Fire and Rescue arguably has one of the most challenging yet fascinating media careers you can think of.
Chuck has has worked in the political, corporate and emergency services media for thirty-five years. He put his GI bill benefits to good use and, completed his undergraduate work in journalism and political science.
Having served as a press secretary, communications manager and director, public information officer and as a strategic communications consultant in organizations large and small, he is now using his wealth of experience and knowledge to train and inspire a new generation of PIOs.
What is it about political communication that is/was appealing to you?
First, it has been the ability as a communicator to provide factual, validated information needed by a specific audience or constituency. I enjoyed the balance of working with elected officials and the media, being an honest broker of communications with and between both sides of the communications equation. I had the opportunity to work in communications in the private sector and while fulfilling, public service has always been at my core and provided me with my most fulfilling moments professionally.
As a communicator, I have had the benefit of being able to participate and help drive public policy decisions, based on my communication role and knowledge. Throughout my career, I worked with many people that were true role models and exemplary public servants. They were completely dedicated by ethics, the rule of law, and a guided by an exceptional, inherent principal of “doing the right thing,” no matter how hard. I had an extraordinary career with exceptional people that I respected. I hope I helped to pass it on, and teach younger colleagues those guiding principles.
How did that experience serve you well in your current role?
As a senior member of San Juan Island Fire and Rescue, I hope I continue to be a role model and teacher for the next generation, while currently serving my community and providing needed, factual information. As a part of our leadership team and working directly with our elected fire commissioners and our Chief, my experience as a PIO allows me to contribute to serve the needs of our unique communities in our served islands. I am fully committed to succession planning and ensuring continuity of the PIO role and function beyond my service time.
San Juan Islands must be a very unique place to work. Who are your main audiences and what unique challenges do you face?
The San Juan Islands, in San Juan County, Washington is a collection of more than 170 islands in the furthest Northwestern corner of the contiguous United State. The islands have no physical connection to the mainland and only four islands are served by the Washington State Ferry system. The four ferry served islands contain the majority of the population of the San Juan Islands and are served by four Fire Protection Districts (Orcas Island, Shaw Island, Lopez Island and San Juan Island). San Juan Island Fire & Rescue is part of Fire District #3 and it was established on October 6, 1958. Fire District #3 covers all of San Juan Island, including Brown; Henry; Johns; Pearl; Spieden and Stuart Islands.
There are approximately 17,580 residents of the San Juan Islands, but the number increases significantly during the summer season where many residents have second homes and there is a large number of vacation rentals, hotels, bed and breakfasts and related permitted vacation accommodations (including campgrounds and boats).
Audiences for communications are varied based on our seasonal population shifts. A huge challenge for communication is not having a media outlet that is viewed as the “go to” place for communications. There are no television or radio media outlets. There is only one, weekly, print newspaper and there are two on-line hyper-local news related websites, but neither operate in the context of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) or use media ethics guidelines or framework. That forces much of our communication work to be done through social media and identified community leaders seen as honest communication brokers.
A PIO is more than someone who puts a media release out. An effective PIO is, and should be, an active participant in the leadership team.
As you are so close to the Canadian border do you have a different approach to stakeholder and partner working? There must be times when you have to work with different protocols.
For mutual aid, our four island fire districts are very dependent and each other and we work closely together. Or key mutual aid partner is the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, which provides wildland firefighting capabilities including air resources. The majority of the San Juan Islands are uninhabited and are either state or nationally protected wilderness refuges. Airlift Northwest and Island Air provides medical evacuation resources for removing patients by air. San Juan Island Fire and Rescue has a marine rescue unit and capability for firefighting, rescue and medical evacuation via water.
We are physically much, much closer to communities in British Columbia than we are to the US mainland and have the ability to assist on both sides of the border in any emergency. Our neighbors in BC, including Sydney and Victoria remain vigilant, as we are, to assist where needed, when needed. While the border can provide challenges, it provides opportunities as well. There are multiple aviation and water resources we can tap into as needed, appropriate and available including the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, Canadian Coast Guard, Royal Canadian Navy, and border patrol services on both sides of the Haro Strait.
Give us a rundown of your day-to-day communication activities
As a volunteer, I do not have set hours and I am on call 24-7 as the PIO. I also serve as a qualified Marine unit crewmember for SJIF&R. Much of my work as PIO is working closely with out Chief, our district leadership and elected officials to communicate on issues of concern for the communities we serve.
What’s the hardest thing about your job?
Our islands are a small, close-knit community. In an emergency, it is very likely you will know the person involved and it is a huge challenge to maintain confidentiality in an emergency. Many residents have radio scanners and use social media to hypothesize what is happening and who is involved. This is which extremely difficult to work around as we maintain confidentiality and protect family’s privacy in a time of need following an emergency.
What do you love about your job?
In an emergency services context, it is the ability to help people in distress remain as calm as possible by providing accurate, validated information, assisting them in taking whatever actions they need to remain safe and feel protected. As a career, it is incredibly fulfilling to be in the PIO role. I have never been bored and I have had the opportunity to discover many professional and personal traits/ talents about so many people. As PIO you will have access and always learn new things about different functions of your organization. You will find new opportunities and tools to make your messaging more effective and valuable to your residents, constituents and your customers.
I urge everyone who is in a PIO role or aspiring to be a PIO to abandon the idea that the media is an advisory or worse, “the enemy.”
What would you say is the biggest misconception about being a PIO?
A PIO is more than someone who puts a media release out. An effective PIO is, and should be, an active participant in the leadership team. An effective PIO is someone working on thinking strategically and developing messaging opportunities. It is not a reactive, mechanical position.
Through your work have you noticed any common themes or challenges regardless of who you are working with?
I urge everyone who is in a PIO role or aspiring to be a PIO to abandon the idea that the media is an advisory or worse, “the enemy.” Every single person who has said this, or believes it, regardless of whether they worked in the public or private sectors, were ineffective and became liabilities to their organization.
It is stressful, especially in a crisis, to work with media – especially statewide or national media who don’t live in your community and aren’t afraid to push boundaries to get a story or an exclusive. Media and PIOs have a symbiotic relationship and we need each other to serve our community.
The more honest and the more you can not take anything personally – the better you will be at your job and while you may not be liked (which is professionally, extremely unimportant) you will be respected and media will work with you and likely accept your messaging as being direct and honest.
What would you say to anyone in a leadership role about having a PIO who might not have one?
You are doing your agency, yourself and your community a disservice by not developing and including a PIO as part of your leadership team. There are dozens of reasons why a PIO can be critical to your success and the success of an agency, especially in a disaster or an emergency. If you don’t believe me, or you want to chat about, buy me a pint at your local and let’s talk…
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